The basic facts are very clear. Russia presents the greatest challenge to international law and order since the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. And even though the West has much greater superiority over Russia — both economically and militarily — than it ever had over the Soviet Union, today's leaders are reluctant to take advantage of this asymmetry.
The problem, perhaps, is due to the ambivalence of most regional experts that guide Western leaders' thinking. Their fundamental misreading of Russia is based on the fact that they don't understand the difference between the Soviet nomenclatura and modern Russia's corrupt elite. They grossly underestimate the attachment of Russian elites to their mansions and bank accounts in the West. Likewise, Moscow's key decision-makers are way more dependent financially and psychologically on the West than the bureaucrats of the Brezhnev era. Sanctions can successfully divide this group from Putin's inside circle, but they have to go further and exact greater pain.
And yet, despite President Barack Obama's rhetoric, the West — particularly Europe — appears reluctant to impose tougher sanctions. Unlike during the Cold War, Western companies draw much more benefit from Russia today, and thus they too will have to pay the price of sanctions. But after the first round of sanctions, stocks rebounded as markets were relieved that the measures didn't seem far-reaching. So how does the West expect to be taken seriously by Putin when even Wall Street isn't buying the seriousness of the Western alliance's intentions? The dilemma is simple: Is the West willing to pay this price now, or delay the decision and pay a much higher price in the future?
The choice can best be described in medical terms. The cancer of Russian aggression first showed up in Georgia, but the West decided to neglect the diagnosis and preferred to treat the illness with aspirin. Crimea is the metastasis of what happened in Georgia, and yet the West is still excluding the surgical option — that is to say military intervention — as carrying too high a risk. But at least it should apply chemotherapy. Yes, this means that the West will feel the effects of its own drugs, and particularly European companies in the short term. But in the long term, this painful dose is the only way to help kill the cancer that is Putin.
Winston Churchill once prophetically told Hitler's appeasers: "You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor and you will have war." Surely, we cannot expect modern-day politicians obsessed with polls and midterm elections to be Churchillian all the time. But at a minimum they should not want to go down in history as the Neville Chamberlains of the 21st century. And misreading Putin for the man that he is — and has always been — is at the heart of appeasement.
Mikheil Saakashvili was the president of Georgia from 2004 to 2013.